In the last entry we discussed a successful ambush undertaken by the IRA on a group of regular British servicemen and RIC, wherein the “Crown Forces” were all too easily accounted for. It was not always going to be so simple however, and events in North Clare, in the summer of 1919, possibly show the first sure signs of how desperate the War of Independence was going to be come, when those same Crown Forces decided to take matters of reaction into their own hands.
County Clare, and it’s north-western region no more so than other parts, had been relatively quiet up to that point. Its record in the Easter Rising, and in the town we will discuss today – Ennistymon, around 25km north-west of county capital Ennis – was not spectacular: a company gathered, took arms from local families that had them, disbanded when no orders came, and gave the guns back when it was all over. Since then, the Volunteer organisation there had gradually increased in size benefiting from the East Clare by-election where Eamon de Valera was elected. Funds were gathered, “rates” were collected, and local courts set-up in defiance of the British alternative. An aborted attack had even already taken place on a local RIC barracks, but to no great effect.
Enough men had joined the Volunteers for the Clare region to be split into three brigades in 1918, East, Mid and West. Their activities in Clare did not go unnoticed, and they were as liable to be arrested for sedition as others, with some of those convicted undertaking hunger strikes while imprisoned. Local reaction could sometimes be mixed: an incident in late 1918, when a bank in Ennistymon was robbed by members of the local Volunteer battalion acting in their own interest, severely affected morale for a time, and led to some resentment from the civilian population. Yet, the success of the nascent IRA, and the Dail state they were supporting, in Clare at this time was increasingly obvious.
In August 1919, they got the chance to be a bit more pro-active from a military perspective. On the 5th of that month, Seamus Connelly, a former battalion commander in Ennistymon, who had resigned over the aforementioned robbery, met with a few other local Volunteers, who advised him that two RIC personnel, a Sergeant John Riordan (O’Riordan in some accounts) and Constable Michael Murphy, had been spotted on a cycle patrol, going from their barracks at Islandbaun to Ennistymon. The suggestion was made, and agreed to, that an ambush should be attempted on the two while they made the return journey.
The local RIC had already been ambushed sometime before, albeit with no fatal consequences. Two members of the police had been held up and disarmed not far from Ennistymon, without a shot being fired. The event caused some humiliation for the RIC, who were seeing their authority eroded more and more as time went on. Riordan had been recorded as stating bluntly that he intended to deal harshly with anyone who attempted to disarm him in a similar fashion. In the end, there would be shooting, but he would be on the wrong end.
The chosen ambush site was a crossroads that those who left accounts dubbed “81 Cross”, around three and a half miles from Ennistymon itself. The three Volunteers, all armed though with very limited ammunition, enacted their ambush around 8PM in the evening, when the RIC men in question reached the intended attack point. According to Connelly, an attempt was made to hold them up as before, but the RIC men were unwilling to co-operate. Constable Murphy, only 19, engaged Connelly hand-to-hand while an exchange of fire broke out among the others. After a brief scuffle, Murphy was shot dead and Riordan was wounded badly enough that he would expire within a few hours. One of the Volunteers, a Martin Devitt, was hit, but survived. The Sergeant and Constable were relieved of their only arms, two revolvers, and the ambushers scattered.
The ambush was of questionable execution and worth. The haul was fairly negligible, and the entire thing was arranged on a rapid ad-hoc basis, which was hardly the best method of undertaking such things: even by that point IRA units across the country were preparing in greater detail for attacks. This may explain the nature of what occurred, with the ambushers seemingly caught by surprise with the more ferocious than expected response of the RIC. But, they had still won the engagement, even if it was not the kind of affair that would be written up in the annals of Irish history.
The RIC responded by enacting raids and questioning the local population closely, but were unable to get any witness statements, despite the attempted intervention of clergy. Connelly, in his account, noted that this was not due to simple ignorance, as their own movements that day were seen by locals. But regardless of what the local priests said, or how the RIC pressed, the population of Ennistymon and the surrounding area were not willing to aid investigations against the IRA, due no doubt to a combination of support for their cause and fear of reprisal.
Ten days after the Ennistymon ambush, another fatality occurred in the area, though this one was neither RIC or IRA. The house of the Murphy family – no relation to the deceased Constable – was fired upon in the dead of night on the 14th August. 15 year old Francis Murphy, sitting up in the kitchen reading a book, was hit and killed. Those who fired the shots fled quickly afterwards
Murphy was a member of Fianna Eireann, and his father was a prominent Gaelic Leaguer. In conjunction with testimony of nearby witnesses, the inquest into the teenager’s death judged his killing to have been carried out by British Army regulars barracked nearby, who did so as a reprisal for the RIC deaths earlier that month. Naturally, the British Army denied such reports, but there were only so many likely culprits. The only people who could have carried out such an attack, given the level of fire directed at the Murphy home, were the IRA, who had no reason to do so, the RIC, who may have had motivation of a kind but were then currently engaged in an effort to win the support of the local population, and the British military.
Just like the initial ambush, it is more than likely that this reprisal attack was carried out without anything in the way of orders from above, but it still marked another important turning point in the growing struggle. Up to then, reprisals against IRA attacks had taken the form of raids, arrests, restrictions on movement and other collectivised punitive measures, all done in accordance with the law, even if the law was of a martial bent. But this was different: an eye for an eye taken to a fatal extreme, where those targeted for punishment had no direct connection to the initial motivation. It was a potent escalation, the beginning of a policy that would come to define the conflict for many.
The killing was roundly condemned, just as the earlier ones had been, but was arguably much more important for the strategic picture in the area. The Crown Forces were already in a tough situation with the lack of support for their investigation into the 81 Cross attack, and that was hardly going top improve with the similarly unsolved murder of a local teenager. The people of Ennistymon were in the process of rejecting British courts, police and government in favour of republican entities, and the death of Francis Murphy would only accelerate that.
The IRA in the area would also go from the strength to strength in the aftermath of both incidents. More spectacular ambushes would take place in 1920, as the RIC retreated and republican control became more manifest. We will come to them in time. But next week, I want to focus on a similar situation, in some respects, to that which took place in Ennistymon, only further south. In Fermoy, Co Cork, the British were about to step-up their reactions to IRA attacks.
To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.